One of the first things my Full Metal Parenting co-conspirator, Matt, and I ever discussed, was the fact we’d both spent time in anger management classes. I can’t remember who brought the subject up first, but we shared a similar realisation that darkness was clouding our lives. Neither of us had been violent towards our partners or children, but we both recognised we needed to tackle our anger problems for the sake of those we love. Each of us have very different tales to tell about how anger’s featured in our lives. In this month’s column we look at how we’re trying to live under brighter skies.
Because we’re tackling the grim topic of anger, I was originally aiming for a really upbeat opening. I figured a big burst of positive vibes would make for a great start, but then I turned on the news. There, splayed across the screen, was the harrowing sight of mangled children’s bodies, the consequences of anger writ in blood and suffering. No matter whose side of any conflict you’re on, you have to wonder how any parent could inflict the agony of losing a child upon another. But that’s human beings, I guess.
We’ve yet to run out of ways of letting our anger ruin the lives of others.
Every day we have our little fits of fury, and raise the temperature on already tense situations, all to prove fucking worthless points. We’ve all been involved in ridiculous arguments that have soured the atmosphere for days. But, as tetchy as things can get in grown-up relationships, there’s nothing heavier in this universe than watching a tear run down your child’s cheek because you lost your temper.
Like I said, I was going to start this column with a positive line like, I used to have a hair-trigger temper, and now I don’t. Then I thought I’d tell you all about how anger doesn’t feature in my life anymore, and how that’s made me a great dad. But there was a problem with all those lines. They’re lies.
Thing is, we aim to talk honestly about parenting, and the truth is, I have anger issues.
Now, we all know parents with a baseline of simmering anger—perhaps you’re one yourself. That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re bad parents, or likely to lash out. And life is stressful whether you’ve got kids or not, so everyone’s perfectly entitled to get angry.
As far as my anger issues are concerned, I’m not in denial about them, and I fully understand why I have them. I also don’t spend my life thundering about like an ogre with a sore head, blame others for my anger, or expect them to assuage my mood. I attend to my issues, because, as we’re hopefully all teaching our kids, controlling our emotions is our responsibility. I think, if you’re carrying any anger about, that’s a pretty sensible way to handle it. Don’t take your anger out on others, and don’t expect others to fix your problems.
In other words: own your shit, and deal with it constructively.
That’s an easy enough philosophy to follow, in theory. But for many years I definitely wasn’t attending to my emotional problems. I used to be, to put it kindly, a volatile guy. If I wasn’t indulging in self-destructive behaviour, I was dishing out grief to anyone in my orbit. Thankfully, I recognised I needed to do something about my anger before my son arrived in this world.
Today, anger and I have a really clear-cut arrangement about the role it plays in my life, and heavy metal is a signatory to that agreement. Metal allows me to indulge those dark emotions I carry around, and I’m sure it does much the same for you. I think it was punk legend John Lydon who summed it up best of all by saying, “anger is an energy.” It’s how we direct that energy that counts.
When I was a kid, I had significant difficulties in understanding the world around me. These days, the personality traits I exhibited as a child would be recognised as resting on the autistic spectrum, with a nice solid dose of anxiety mixed in. But back in the day, no one was talking about things like Asperger’s syndrome, or social or post-traumatic stress disorders. So I was just the weird kid, the one with all the emotional problems.
I was a confused and subsequently temperamental kid. That was clearly a problem for my parents, and well outside their bounds of understanding. But then, they had their own problems, being stuck in an unhappy and ultimately short-lived marriage. That situation didn’t give me a good head start on learning how anger is best handled, and to make matters worse, I was abused.
That destroyed any chance I had of feeling safe in an already bewildering world, and it further reduced my limited emotional palette. All I really had growing up was anger, anxiety, and fear, and eventually that led me to develop long-term mental health problems.
I spent a large portion of my life in a cycle of self-harm, instability, and addiction. I got angrier and angrier, and my life became increasingly more chaotic until, 14 years ago, I walked into a psychiatric hospital and asked for help.
Since then, I’ve remained clean and sober, and I’ve been dealing with my issues as proactively as I can. But there’s no cure for my idiosyncrasies, and while I can turn to medication to take the edge off, I’m still confronted by the emotional rawness of my life 24/7. To be honest, having quirks like mine isn’t exactly a ball of fun.
Some of my oddities really get in the way of life, and that pisses me off. On my bad days, the anger I carry around makes for a heavy load. I’m not a ticking time bomb or anything, but I do have to make accommodations for my foibles. The fact that I get to be a dad and a partner is testament to how families, in all sorts of situations, support each other to make a brighter future.
We should embrace that, and when the idea for this FMP series first struck me, I really wanted to press home the point that difference doesn’t equate to deficiency.
Over the years, I’ve worked hard to find strategies to deal with my anger. More so now that I’m a parent, because it’s part of my job to teach my son how to cope with the myriad situations in life that will make his blood boil.
To do that, I need to set a good example. Sometimes, I really don’t.
Some days, life just gets to me. I lose my temper, and the big old grouchy ‘daddy voice’ comes out. That’s no big deal, in the grand scheme, because we’ve all snapped after asking our kids 1400 times to put on their shoes. But then, on other days, I really just need to exit the house.
I’m a big fan of taking time out. I take a walk around the block, or take five minutes to sit on the stoop. As a strategy to make sure my anger doesn’t become someone else’s problem, and to make sure no one (that is, me) overreacts, a timeout works really well.
When I was kid, I was forever getting thrown in my room for time out. I spent hours alone, basically terrified about what I had done to set my parents’ temper alight. Of course, most of the time it wasn’t about me at all. Nowadays, I can look back and see that my parents had their own troubles going on.
I don’t want my son to be an adult before he realises that maybe dad was just having a bad day. Why make my anger his problem? I know what it’s like to grow up in a house feeling unsafe, and I never want my son to feel afraid in his own home. I’m acutely aware that emotional damage can ache as much as any punch.
So, it seems a lot more sensible for me to take the time out, so my son knows he’s not at fault. And hey, it’s not like I can’t take my iPod and my cup of tea with me.
Another strategy I have for keeping my anger in check is trying to put things in context. It’s about sorting out what’s worth responding to, and what’s going to be forgotten in five minutes. As my son’s getting older, he’s pushing the boundaries more and more. But there’s no need to react to every little disobedient comment or action. I try to remember that the lessons he’ll learn about anger right now will affect his relationships in the future.
Given my early adult years, it’s understandable that backing down used to leave me feeling vulnerable and weak. That raised my fear levels, and those walls of anger, so attacking had become my default option. That might be familiar to a lot of men. However, in anger management classes, I learnt that de-escalating a situation isn’t a sign of weakness.
By the time my son arrived, I was dead set on ensuring that my past didn’t repeat itself.
I want my son’s life to be entirely free of the kinds of turmoil I experienced in my own, and that means taking lots of deep breaths and talking about why anyone is angry in the house.
We try to be as open as we can about how we’re all feeling. Although my son is fast approaching an age where he doesn’t want to talk to his parents—because, “you won’t understand”—hopefully those lessons about being open, and not letting things build up, will be ingrained for when he is ready to talk.
My son has already had a tough time in life because, well, he’s got a few of my quirky genes. It’s been important for us to listen to him, and not shrug off his anger as childish. His feelings are as valid as mine, and while I might look at the things he’s grumbling sometimes as being no big deal, I have to remember these are very real emotions for him.
Dismissing his feelings dismisses him, and my son needs to know we respect his feelings as much as we expect him to respect everyone else’s in the house. I do feel tempted to get angry about his fixations, especially the when the ones upsetting him will be meaningless when he’s all grown up. But I have to remember that these are the days preparing him for bigger problems in life. Telling him to get over it is not a good example of how to care about, and respect, other people.
Certainly, when I see my son struggling or exhibiting personality traits that I had as a kid, it worries me no end. When that happens, I blame myself. While parenting has proven to me that walls of anger are counterproductive, I inevitably raise them when obsessing over my own failings.
I am extremely self-critical, which means my stumblings as a parent gnaw at me. I put a lot of pressure on myself to be a great dad, but I mess up all the time. We all do that—parenting is a neverending series of slip-ups and small victories, and I don’t judge other parents for messing up. Still, I’ll pathologically pick at my own mistakes, and if I see hurt in my son’s eyes, I get really angry with myself.
When I should hug it out, my strongest compulsion is to crawl into my shell. Which I’m really expert at. It’s a struggle for me to let anyone come into my personal space when I’m feeling down, but I’m incredibly fortunate to have an amazing partner who does her utmost to ensure that I don’t retreat too far.
She’ll sit me down and explain that it’s okay to take some time to process my hangups, but she’ll also make it clear that I’ve only got X amount of time to wallow, because we’re going to be working together, to make the day a whole lot better.
I think any successful strategies I’ve found in managing my anger with respect to parenting have come from the worst of circumstances. One of the things with having long-term mental health problems is that I sat in a lot of rooms with medical professionals trying to untangle my particular crisis on that day. Then, one day, I met a counsellor who suggested that might all be a complete waste of my time. He suggested that instead of fighting my problems I might like to try acceptance.
That was a revelation for me, and it ties directly into anger. Just like revisiting an old argument isn’t always the best course of action, neither is unpacking past trauma. Sometimes, you’ve just got to accept what is. Start from there, and then find the work-around.
That’s exactly how parenting has been most beneficial in helping me deal with anger. It’s forced me to deal with the now, to be present, and not fixate on the past. I spent time as a single parent, and that was a huge kick in the ass about becoming less self-obsessed and less angry about incidental things. However, whether single or co-parenting, I’ve certainly felt less inclined to dwell on things that get me cranky. And so, over time, my perspective on life has changed.
Once you’ve sat around a hospital waiting room freaking out because your kid is throwing up gallons of sick, the fact you didn’t get to buy that King Diamond LP you saw last week really isn’t worth getting grumpy about. Sure, stressing about your wants versus the reality of kids and their needs is tough to balance. But, just this week, I was all in a huff about not having the cash to buy a book I wanted, and then I came home to find my son had made me a # 1 DAD sign to hang on the wall.
It’s hard to grumble about flippancies when you’re trying not to burst into tears due to some off-the-scale cuteness.
Also, it takes a lot of energy to remain angry, and parenting is exhausting. Being constantly busy might shorten your temper, but it’s also really good at making you wave your hand and say, “whatever.” I’ve let all sorts of things slide that would have pissed me off in the past, all because I know I’m coming home to my family, and we’re going to hunker down on the couch, pull the blanket over our knees, grab the popcorn, and watch some more Doctor Who.
That’s what’s really important.
So, I don’t shout in my house. Not unless someone has been messing with the Iron Maiden bootlegs I had bookmarked, after I explicitly said not to touch them. But we don’t need to go into that. I’m over that. Honestly. I don’t even know why I brought it up.
Still, the fact I don’t let anger reign means that when my voice takes a sterner turn it’s all the more effective at hauling things back into line. Physical discipline doesn’t feature in our house, because I felt that all too often as a kid, and I’d never bring violence into my house. In many ways, that’s made me much smarter at finding solutions to my anger, which is where our good friend heavy metal enters the picture.
Metal’s a multi-purpose cathartic remedy for me. Its prime role in the anger/parenting nexus is that it allows me to tap into chaos and madness safely. I really need to be able to access that anger or sadness inside me, and I really need to be able to release that in a way that means no one suffers.
So, metal’s not just something I enjoy for fun—it’s also become a crucial medicinal. If I need to go for a walk to chill out, you can be damn sure there’s going to be some rip-roaring NWOBHM soundtracking that. If I need to feel the tempestuous temper I used to have, then there’s untold black metal bands opening that portal for me. If I want to wallow in addiction and anguish, then there’s sludgy bands aplenty to take me on that trip. If I need to snap and bite, then crusty metal will do that nicely. If I need to sink into a world of misery, well, hello doom. If I need to meditate, then drone metal is there to take me out to the reaches of infinity.
Really, for every problem in my life, there’s a metal medicinal right there to jolt me physically, and then soothe me psychologically.
Parenting has brought stresses and restrictions to my life, and I’ve had to find a work-around for my quirks too. But having a few anger issues hasn’t excluded love from my life. Sometimes, life is really difficult for me, but that doesn’t mean I have to let the frustration that comes with that take the lead.
At its worst, letting anger win simply wreaks havoc. Any child surrounded by that is going to have to deal with emotional scarring.
I know that, all too well.
However, I’m a firm believer that it’s entirely possible to learn new strategies to deal with anger. Doing that can improve your life and relationships immeasurably. I don’t mean for that to come across as some cheesy, self-help bullshit—I honestly believe that if someone like me can set anger in its rightful place, then anyone can.
Anger’s hold over my life, for so many years, means the love and acceptance I experience today is that much richer. That makes me a far better parent. I’m committed to ensuring my anger isn’t problematic, and that the past isn’t repeated. Sure, I mess up, but we all do that. The key point is that I’m choosing not to react anymore. I never want my partner or son to catch a glimpse of the unloved and unhinged world I used to inhabit. I love them. They saved me from that world. Choosing not to react is the least I can do.
— Craig Hayes